'Cleansing' row prompts crisis in Vojvodina

A CONFRONTATION in Serbia's Vojvodina province threatens to touch off violent unrest throughout the region, and test the resolve of the reformist Yugoslav government under Milan Panic to stop 'ethnic cleansing'.

The crisis began last week when Yugoslav officials under Mr Panic arrested five radical Serbian activists who had seized power in the mostly Croatian village of Hrtkovci, 40 miles from Belgrade. Led by Ostoja Sibincic, a Serbian veteran from last year's war in Croatia, the five were accused of the illegal possession of weapons. The arrests followed a complaint to Mr Panic by leaders of Vojvodina's 80,000 Croatian minority alleging they were targets of organised harassment, forced expulsions and killings.

In Hrtkovci, groups of radicalised Serbs, many of them fighters from Croatia, invaded the village this spring and started expelling local residents. Croatians who failed to surrender their homes were beaten up, and a man who refused to hand over his house was murdered. Of 5,000 Croats who lived in Hrtkovci last year, only hundreds remain. The new Serbian bosses ripped down street signs in Latin letters and replaced them with Cyrillic signs. Streets were renamed and so was the village. The activists have rechristened Hrtkovci 'Srbislavci' - 'place of Serbs'.

To challenge the resolve of the Yugoslav authorities, Serbian hardliners in Hrtkovci have delivered an ultimatum. They say they will barricade roads round the village tomorrow, if Mr Sibincic and the other detainees are not released from jail today.

The tactics of the Hrtkovci activists echo the opening phase of the war in Croatia last year, when the seizure of villages by groups of well-armed Serbian activists touched off a bloody, six-month struggle in which thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands lost their homes.

It seems impossible to imagine this bloodthirsty scenario replayed in Vojvodina, a rich agricultural province where 55 per cent of Serbs have peacefully coexisted for centuries with large Hungarian, Croat and Slovak communities.

But tensions in Vojvodina have spiralled this year, as waves of radicalised, homeless Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia pour into the region. They are political fodder for Vojislav Seselj, a neo-fascist figure on the Serbian political scene, espousing an ethnically pure, enlarged Serbia. He is a close ally of Serbia's ultra-nationalist President, Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr Seselj visited Hrtkovci in July and touched off the persecution of local Croats by publicly reading out a list of 17 local 'traitors' who had to leave the village.

The struggle over Hrtkovci involves higher stakes than the fate of one village. If the Serbian extremists are released, the authority of Mr Panic and his federal government will have suffered a severe blow. It would be a signal to radical Serbian activists to launch fresh attacks against Vojvodina's much bigger 400,000 Hungarian community.

Any move to remove the Hungarians would certainly spark off widespread unrest in the northern province, which had enjoyed a good deal of autonomy from Serbia until Mr Milosevic took power in Belgrade.

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